Chapter 5

What is STS Science Teaching?

Glen Aikenhead

David Layton (chapter 4) described the STS movement as having "an intriguing mixture of motives." This mixture has produced an array of STS curricula (Cheek, 1992c) and a variety of approaches to STS outlined in chapter 3 by John Ziman. It is interesting, and even reassuring, to read in David Layton's description the positive consequences to an imprecisely defined innovation. The present chapter clarifies this imprecision by providing several frameworks that help to make sense out of the "mixture of motives" in STS science teaching.

When we are actually teaching in a classroom, it is difficult to separate curriculum from instruction. But when we reflect on curriculum and instruction, it is advantageous to separate the two in our minds. The instructional features of STS science teaching (the methods and strategies for how to be an effective STS science teacher) have been thoroughly described by Joan Solomon (1993) and myself (Aikenhead, 1988b, 1991b). The curricular features of STS science teaching are the focus of this chapter.

Four aspects of a curriculum will be explored to clarify the imprecision in STS science teaching:

  • 1. Function -- what are the goals for teaching science through STS?

    2. Content -- what should be taught?

    3. Structure -- how should the science and STS content be integrated?

    4. Sequence -- how can we design STS instruction?

  • The chapter does not offer a definitive answer to these questions, but it does sketch the territory that must be explored when we try to answer the questions for ourselves.


    When compared to the function of the traditional science curriculum, STS science represents a type of Kuhnian paradigm shift in goals. STS education embraces the successes of the old paradigm but with a different world view on science teaching. This world view is described here.

    Fundamentally, STS science teaching is student-oriented, as contrasted with the scientist orientation of tradition science teaching. The student-oriented character of STS science is represented in Figure 5.1 by the central position given to the student.

    figure 5.1

    Students strive to understand their everyday experiences. To do so, students make sense out of their social environment, their artificially constructed environment, and their natural environment. This sense-making is depicted in Figure 5.1 by the solid arrows between the student and the three different environments. Students integrate their personal understandings of their social, artificially constructed, and natural environments. This integration is represented in Figure 5.1 by the solid arrows simultaneously linking the student with each of these three environments. The study of the natural world we call science. The study of the artificially constructed world is technology. And society is the social milieu. Teaching science through science-technology-society refers to teaching about natural phenomena in a manner that embeds science in the technological and social environments of the student. This function is shown in Figure 5.1 by the broken arrows. The broken arrows attempt to superimpose a pedagogical structure that harmonizes with the solid arrows. In other words, STS instruction aims to help students make sense out of their everyday experiences, and does so in ways that support students' natural tendency to integrate their personal understandings of their social, technological and natural environments.

    The "SCIENCE" box in Figure 5.1 represents traditional science discipline content. In a traditional science curriculum, this science content is taught in isolation from "TECHNOLOGY" and "SOCIETY" (students' technological and social worlds). In an STS science curriculum, this science content is connected and integrated with the students' everyday worlds, and in a manner that mirrors students' natural efforts at making sense out of those worlds.

    STS science is about making sense out of life today and for the future. But for what purpose? What are the goals of STS science education? Themes have emerged from section 1 of this book. These themes are summarized here.

    The inadequacies of traditional science education (the "saber-tooth" curriculum, chapter 2) define one over-arching theme. STS science is expected to reverse the existing negative trends in enrollments, achievement, and career choices. Specifically, STS science is expected to increase general interest in and public understanding of science, particularly for the bright creative students who are discouraged by a boring and irrelevant curriculum (Bondi, 1985; Eijkelhof, 1990; Kahle, 1988; Majumdar et al., 1991; Oxford University, 1989; Science Council of Canada, 1984; Sj.berg and Imsen, 1988; Solomon, 1988a, 1988b, 1993). The gender aspect of the problem is the focus of section 4 of this book.

    STS science is also expected to fill a critical void in the traditional curriculum -- the social responsibility in collective decision making on issues related to science and technology. Such issues require a harmonious mix of a scientific-technical elite with an informed attentive citizenry. Together both groups will need to make complex decisions that involve "the application of scientific knowledge, technological expertise, social understanding, and humane compassion" (Kranzberg, 1991, p. 238). The pervasive goal of social responsibility in collective decision making leads to numerous related goals: individual empowerment (Aikenhead, 1985a, b; Fleming, 1989; Layton, 1986; Solomon, 1993); intellectual capabilities such as critical thinking, logical reasoning, creative problem solving, and decision making (Bybee, 1987); national and global citizenship, usually "democracy" or "stewardship" (Gilliom et al., 1991, 1992); socially responsible action by individuals (Rubba, 1991; De Vore 1992); and an adroit work force for business and industry (Bondi, 1985; Hurd, 1989; Moore, 1991; Wirth, 1991). These goals emphasize an induction into a world increasingly shaped by science and technology, more than they support an induction into a scientific discipline.

    STS science courses differ widely because of their different goals. Upon closer examination, however, this variation reflects differences in the balance among similiar goals. In other words, most STS science courses harbor similar goals but give different priorities to different goals. The idea of balance is captured by the slogan "scientific literacy" (Hart, 1989; Roberts, 1983). Although "scientific literacy" provides an element of persuasion in rationalizing science programs (who can be against scientific literacy?), the term can be useful in defining a goal cluster.

    For Bybee (1985b, p.85), the balance for STS science education is among three general goals:

    1. Acquisition of knowledge (concepts within, and concepts about, science and technology) for personal matters, civic concerns, or cultural perspectives.

    2. Development of learning skills (processes of scientific and technological inquiry) for information gathering, problem solving, and decision making.

    3. Development of values and ideas (dealing with the interactions among science, technology, and society) for local issues, public policies, and global problems.

    Another cluster of goals for STS science has been identified by Waks and Prakash (1985, pp. 108-114):

  • 1. Cognitive competency -- standardized knowledge and skills needed for reading and speaking accurately about STS issues; for example: conservation of energy in science means something different than it does in everyday use; controlling variables is essential to good experiments; research and development is a combination of science and technology.

    2. Rational/academic -- a grasp of the epistemology and sociology of science required for understanding the dynamics at play in STS issues; for example: scientific observations are theory-laden; scientific beliefs are reached by consensus making; epidemiology can have political dimensions.

    3. Personal -- students understand their everyday lives better; for example: money invested in insulation has benefits in cold climates; you are what you eat; giving careful attention to words on labels can save you problems.

    4. Social action -- students participate in responsible political action; for example: making consumer choices to affect global environments; writing letters to government or industries; participating in the resolution of a local issue.

  • All four goals may have a place within a single curriculum, but some goals will have higher priority than others. For example, the fourth goal -- social action -- is usually a high priority for environmental courses (Rubba, 1991). This goal may have a low priority in some educational jurisdictions where communities discourage students from engaging in social action. An STS science course would likely embrace all four goals, though each goal with a different emphasis.

    These and other goal clusters have guided curriculum development in STS science (Aikenhead, 1986; Cheek, 1992c; Fensham 1988; Hart, 1989; Northern Examination Board, 1988; Science Through STS Project, 1985; Solomon, 1993; Yager, 1992c).

    The function of the old ("saber-tooth") science curriculum has been to prepare students for the next level of education and to teach correct answers (Roberts, 1988). These functions are not ignored in STS science, but they are not given as strong an emphasis. Therefore, an STS science curriculum addresses the needs of two groups: (1) future scientists and engineers (the elite), and (2) citizens who need intellectual empowerment to participate thoughtfully in their society (the attentive public; science for all).

    A curriculum's goals are hollow without content. The next section considers the issue of content.


    There is a marked difference between the content of university STS courses and the content of high school STS science courses. University courses invariably deal with science and technology policy, development, and/or discourse (Layton, chapter 4; Lepkrowski, 1989; McGinn, 1991). The subject is abstract. On the other hand, high school STS courses position themselves among the concrete experiences of students. These courses provide high school students with a simplified, although intellectually honest, perspective on the human and social aspects of science.

    The content of STS science will include both science content and STS content. Here I focus on STS content. In the section that follows, "Integrative Structure," I explore how this STS content can be integrated with science content.

    Many educators, particularly in North America, conceive of STS science content as dealing mainly with social issues that connect science with a societal problem (Yager, 1992a). Rosenthal (1989) and Ziman (1984) remind us, however, that there are two types of social issues in STS science:

  • 1. Social issues external to the scientific community ("science and society" topics; for example; energy conservation or pollution),

    2. Social aspects of science -- issues internal to the scientific community (the social epistemology of science; for example, the nature of scientific theories, or the cold fusion controversy).

  • The relative importance of various social issues external to science was a topic researched by Piel (1981) in Project Synthesis, and by Bybee and Mau (1986) in their survey of international science educators.

    STS science can also address social issues internal to science; for instance, its philosophy, its history, and its interpersonal dynamics. The social issues internal to science are delineated by Snow (1987). His "system of science" has three dimensions: cognitive, personal, and sociological dimensions. The cognitive dimension includes experimental knowledge, hypotheses, theories, laws, and empirical observations, as well as the values that underlie them (for example, accuracy, coherence, fruitfulness, and parsimony). The personal dimension encompasses a scientist's social values that influence his or her research programs and non-empirical arguments. The sociological dimension incorporates community values, invisible colleges, credibility, journal publications, and other aspects of importance to the scientific community. In his book An Introduction to Science Studies, Ziman (1984) provides a thorough and systematic treatment of STS content, both external and internal to the scientific community.

    The full range of STS content in science education is made evident in Cheek's (1992c) thorough review of 15 STS projects, syllabi, guidelines and major policy statements. He analyzed projects from all over the world, but gave special attention to the STS content proposed by Rubba and Weisenmayer, (1985a), Waks (1987a), Aikenhead (1986), and the Science Through STS Project (1985).

    The science education community holds a variety of views concerning STS content. Nevertheless, a succinct definition of STS content is offered here. The definition attempts to encompass the full range of views held by science educators. STS content in a science education curriculum is comprised of an interaction between science and technology, or between science and society; and any one or combination of the following:

  • . A technological artefact, process, or expertise

    . The interactions between technology and society

    . A societal issue related to science or technology

    . Social science content that sheds light on a societal issue related to science and technology

    . A philosophical, historical, or social issue within the scientific or technological community.

  • This broad definition is used in the next section to describe the structure of STS curricula.

    Integrative Structure

    Various STS science curricula embrace different goals and content due to different views about the nature of STS. To clarify STS education further, a descriptive scheme is proposed, "Categories of STS Science" (Table 5.1). It delineates the diversity in STS science in terms of the degree and manner in which STS content is integrated with traditional science content. In other words, the scheme deals with the integrative structure of STS science education.

    Before describing the scheme, let me comment on its limitations. The scheme does not attempt to evaluate different approaches to STS science. Nor does it attempt to prescribe any particular set of goals, or goal priorities, mentioned above. Moreover, the scheme does not address: teaching methods (for example, inquiry, problem solving, decision making), contexts for instruction (for example, local issues, public policies, global problems), and assumptions about how students learn (though constructivism predominates in STS science; Cheek, 1992c).

    The proposed scheme, "Categories of STS Science" (Table 5.1), characterizes STS science in terms of:

  • . Content structure -- the proportion of STS content compared with traditional science content, and the way the two are combined;

    . Student evaluation -- the relative emphasis given to STS versus traditional content. The description is an approximate indicator of relative emphasis, rather than a prescription for classroom practice.

    . Concrete examples of STS science. Each category in Table 5.1 is illustrated by titles of published teaching materials for schools, along with the names of their publishers. Due to space limitations, the list of titles is incomplete.

  • A spectrum underlies the proposed scheme. The spectrum expresses the relative importance afforded STS content in a science course. At one end of the spectrum (category one), STS content is given lowest priority compared with traditional science content, while at the other end (category eight), it is given highest priority. The eight categories of the spectrum are:

    (1) motivation by STS content, (2) casual infusion of STS content, (3) purposeful infusion of STS content, (4) singular discipline through STS content, (5) science through STS content, (6) science along with STS content, (7) infusion of science into STS content, and (8) STS content. One can think of each category as a conveniently identified point along the spectrum. Although no particular category can be said to represent "true" STS science instruction, categories three to six represent views most often cited by STS science leaders. Table 5.1 was inspired by a table about technology education in an article by Fensham (1988).


    Table 5.1 fits here


    In categories one to three of the proposed scheme (Table 5.1), the selection and sequence of science content follow traditional lines. Students are expected to view their natural environment with a theoretical scientific mind. However in categories four to eight, the structure changes dramatically. The organization of science content follows a sequence dictated by the STS content itself. Students view the everyday world from their own commonsense point of view, and draw upon science content on a need to know basis (Aikenhead, 1992c). This type of organization is discussed in the following section, "Sequence."

    Table 5.1 contains numerous details on each of the "Categories of STS Science" and provides a language for talking about STS curricula, classroom materials, and teaching. For instance, some science teachers may be described as showing resistance to moving further than category one, while others may be described as feeling comfortable with teaching category three. On the other hand, certain STS educators might be classified, for instance, as advocating category four STS science.


    Teaching science through STS may be organized according to a traditional science syllabus (categories one to three in Table 5.1), or according to a natural sequence suggested by the STS content itself (categories four to eight in Table 5.1). Which approach is more effective?

    Chapter 16 reviews the research into this question. One conclusion is particularly germane to the present discussion. The research generally indicates that STS materials are

    best organized in a sequence indicated by the arrow in Figure 5.2. The arrow maps out a sequence of teaching events described here.

    figure 5.2


    STS instruction begins in the realm of society, represented by the box in Figure 5.2. A key question or problem is posed; for instance: "Should we be concerned about high voltage power lines in our community?" "How can we explain the conflicting scientific testimony in a newspaper article?" "How is evidence of drunk driving challenged in a court of law?" or "For what purposes are we using different kinds of light sources?"

    In order to understand a societal question or problem, there is usually some technology to examine, even at a superficial level. The domain of technology is represented by the black donut in Figure 5.2. Technology is primarily concerned with developing knowledge and designing processes, in response to human needs and societal problems (Collingridge, 1989; Harrison, 1980; Snow, 1987). Hence, social issues are almost always related to technology. Students are affected far more by their technological world than by their scientific world.

    As mentioned above, a societal question or problem (the beginning of the arrow in Figure 5.2) creates the need to know certain technological knowledge (the donut area in Figure 5.2). But both create the need to know some science content (the central circle in Figure 5.2); for example: "What is the difference between epidemiological and etiological investigations in science reported in the newspaper?" "How does ethanol diffuse from the circulatory system into the respiratory system?" or "What is light?" This science content will help students understand the technology and the societal issue.

    The sequence of instruction suggested by the arrow in Figure 5.2 begins in the domain of society, moves through the domains of technology and traditional science, and then out again to technology. There is an advantage to revisiting the technology that students had earlier studied (for example, high voltage power lines). Students will make more sense out of the technology by using the science they have just learned. Thus, students will grasp a deeper meaning of the science and technology. More complex technologies can be introduced at this time.

    Finally, the arrow in Figure 5.2 ends in the domain of society. Here students often address the original key question or social problem and then make a decision (Aikenhead, 1985a, 1991a). Students make thoughtful decisions informed by (1) an in-depth understanding of the underlying science, (2) a grasp of the relevant technology, and (3) an awareness of the guiding values. For instance, a class might decide what policy should be adopted by the local electricity board concerning high voltage power lines.

    Figure 5.2 suggests a sequence that is useful for a lesson, a unit, or for a textbook in STS science (Aikenhead, 1992c; Eijkelhof and Kortland, 1987). Variations in lessons or units can be achieved by starting a class in the technology domain (the black donut in Figure 5.2) with an interesting technology (for example, television satellite dishes). Alternatively, teachers can begin with an intriguing bit of science content, and move along the arrow from there.

    Figure 5.2 does not indicate the time spent in the society, technology, and science domains. Perhaps 60 to 90 percent of the instruction time will be dedicated to the science domain. A teacher makes that decision, a characteristic of STS described by David Layton in chapter 4.

    In STS science, traditional science content is not watered down, but it embedded in a social-technological context. The choice of context can be made on the basis of (1) its meaningfulness to students, and (2) the science content that is logically generated by the context itself (on a need to know basis), as long as that science content is required by a particular science syllabus or is justifiable by the teacher. From the students' point of view, the science content seems to arise from, and is logically sequenced by, a real-life situation. This perspective lies in marked contrast to the traditional curriculum with its sequence determined by how an academic scientist would systematically conceptualize nature. STS science is student-oriented rather than scientist-oriented. The dichotomy between a scientist's view of nature and a student's view of the everyday world defines a fundamental difference between the traditional science curriculum and an STS science curriculum. In STS science teaching, traditional science content is certainly taught, but students learn this content

    constantly linking it with their everyday world (depicted in Figures 5.1 and 5.2).


    In chapter 2, I argued that the character of scientific knowledge has changed over the past 100 years due to the "socialization" of science. Today we recognize science as having social aspects, both external and internal to science. These social aspects mediate the social construction of scientific knowledge.

    STS science teaching conveys the image of socially constructed knowledge. Its student-oriented approach (Figure 5.1) emphasizes the basic facts, skills, and concepts of traditional science (John Ziman's "valid" science, chapter 3), but does so by integrating that science content into social and technological contexts meaningful to students. The priority of goals for STS science teaching will vary in each country and community. A curriculum's STS content will alter accordingly. Nevertheless, I proposed a broad definition of STS content in order to help articulate the kinds of variations that exist in STS science teaching today.

    The priority of STS goals may also affect the structure of an STS science course. Various structures are represented in Table 5.1. A recommended sequence in the design of STS science is suggested in Figure 5.2.

    Good science-technology-society science education is relevant, challenging, realistic, and rigorous. STS science teaching aims to prepare future scientists/engineers and citizens alike to participate in a society increasingly shaped by research and development involving science and technology.

    TABLE 5.1: Categories of STS Science




    Traditional school science, plus a mention of STS content in order to make a lesson more interesting. (The low status given to STS content explains why this category is not normally taken seriously as STS instruction).

  • Students are not assessed on the STS content.

    EXAMPLES: What many teachers do now to spice up the pure science content.



    Traditional school science, plus a short study (about 1/2 to 2 hours in length) of STS content attached onto the science topic. The STS content does not follow cohesive themes.

    Students are assessed mostly on pure science content and usually only superficially (such as memory work) on the STS content (for instance, 5% STS, 95% science).

    EXAMPLES: Science and Technology in Society SATIS (U.K.: Association for Science Education), Consumer Science (U.S.A.: Burgess), Values in School Science (U.S.A.: R. Brinckerhoff, Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire).



  • Traditional school science, plus a series of short studies (about 1/2 to 2 hours in length) of STS content integrated into science topics, in order to systematically explore the STS content. This content forms cohesive themes.

    Students are assessed to some degree on their understanding of the STS content (for instance, 10% STS, 90% science).

    EXAMPLES: Harvard Project Physics (U.S.A.: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston), Science and Social Issues (U.S.A.: Walch), Science and Societal Issues (U.S.A.: Iowa State University), Nelson Chemistry (Canada: Nelson), Interactive Teaching Units for Chemistry (U.K.: Newcastle Polytechnic), Science, Technology and Society, Block J (U.S.A.: New York State Education). Three SATIS 16-19 modules (What is Science? What is Technology? How Does Society Decide? U.K.: Association for Science Education.)



    STS content serves as an organizer for the science content and its sequence. The science content is selected from one science discipline. A listing of pure science topics looks quite similar to a category 3 science course, though the sequence would be quite different.

    Students are assessed on their understanding of the STS content, but not nearly as extensively as they are on the pure science content (for instance, 20% STS, 80% science).

    EXAMPLES: ChemCom (U.S.A.: American Chemical Society), the Dutch physics modules such as Light Sources and Ionizing Radiation (Netherlands: PLON, University of Utrecht, Physics Dept.), Science and Society Teaching Units (Canada, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), Chemical Education for Public Understanding (U.S.A.: Addison-Wesley), Science Teachers' Association of Victoria Physics Series (Parkville, Australia: STAV Publishing).



    STS content serves as an organizer for the science content and its sequence. The science content is multidisciplinary, as dictated by the STS content. A listing of pure science topics looks like a selection of important science topics from a variety of traditional school science courses.

    Students are assessed on their understanding of the STS content, but not as extensively as they are on the pure science content (for instance, 30% STS, 70% science).

    EXAMPLES: Logical Reasoning in Science and Technology (Toronto: Wiley of Canada), Modular STS (U.S.A.: Wausau, Wisconsin), Global Science (U.S.A.: Kendall/Hunt), the Dutch Environmental Project (Netherlands: NME-VO, University of Utrecht, Physics Dept.), Salters' Science Project (U.K., Heslington: University of York, Dept. of Chemistry.)



    STS content is the focus of instruction. Relevant science content enriches this learning.

    Students are assessed about equally on the STS and pure science content.

  • EXAMPLES: Exploring the Nature of Science (London: Blackie & Son), Society Environment and Energy Development Studies (SEEDS) modules (U.S.A.: Science Research Associates), Science and Technology 11 (Canada, Victoria: BC Ministry of Education).


  • STS content is the focus of instruction. Relevant science content is mentioned, but not systematically taught. Emphasis may be given to broad scientific principles. (The materials classified as category 7 could be infused into a standard school science course, yielding a category 3 STS science course.)

    Students are primarily assessed on the STS content, and only partially on pure science content (for instance, 80% STS, 20% science).

    EXAMPLES: Science in a Social Context (SISCON) in the Schools (U.K.: Association for Science Education), Modular Courses in Technology (U.K.: Schools Council), Science: A Way of Knowing (Canada: University of Saskatchewan, Department of Curriculum Studies), Science, Technology and Society (Australia: Jacaranda Press), Creative Role Playing Exercises in Science and Technology (U.S.A.: Social Science Education Consortium), Issues for Today (Canada: GLC Silver Burdett), Interactions in Science and Society -- a video series (U.S.A.: Agency for Instructional Technology), Perspectives in Science -- a video series (Canada: National Film Board of Canada).



  • A major technology or social issue is studied. Science content is mentioned but only to indicate an existing link to science. (The materials classified as category 8 could be infused into a standard school science course, yielding a category 3 STS science course.)

    Students are not assessed on pure science content to any appreciable degree.

    EXAMPLES: Science and Society (U.K.: Association for Science Education), Innovations: The Social Consequences of Science and Technology program (U.S.A.: BSCS), Preparing for Tomorrow's World (U.S.A.: Sopris West Inc.), Values and Biology (U.S.A.: Walch), and in general, technology design courses and social studies modules.













































  • FIGURE 5.2: A Sequence for STS Science Teaching (From Aikenhead, 1992c)



















































    FIGURE 5.1: An Essence of STS Education